Wednesday November 7th 2012

Keeping Strategy Alive: The Three Simple Questions

Why is it that, despite our best intentions, the work that goes in to the development of a strategic plan does not pay off in the end? By “not paying off,” I mean the process of strategy development does not evolve into a mindset of ongoing strategic thinking. Why not?

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that this occurs because strategy is not part of the culture. This is complex because, well, culture is complex. But our way into the domain of culture can be simplified if we remember the following maxim: structures build habits; habits create culture. Though I did not devise this formula, I have come to believe in its power.

By structures, I mean having the right group of people, asking the right questions, at the most appropriate times. To begin, if your board does not have a strategic directions committee, create one. Their first and most important responsibility is to ensure that the organzation has a strategy. Not a plan, but a strategy. To be sure, planning is important and a concrete, tangible plan has its place. But to develop a strategy is to a) define where an organization needs to be positioned to have the greatest mission impact and be most profitable, and b) identify the challenges and opportunties that lie between the present and that desired position.

In other words, strategy prompts movement toward a position, not just the completion of important tasks.

Once the strategy is clarified, and as time passes, the work of the strategic directions committee is to grapple with the following three questions:

1. What were we thinking then?
2. What has happened since?
3. What do we do now?

That’s it. Really.

Plans become obsolete. But a strategy that is not monitored, that is, not examined through the lens provided by the three questions, is of little value. In this time of uncertainty, it is imperative that boards adopt an approach that recognizes the fluid nature of strategy. Only by keeping the discussion moving can the strategy get the nourishment it needs to remain alive.